Classical Music: The Movements of a Symphony

By David Pogue, Scott Speck

The word symphony has two meanings in classical music, and for the sake of your cocktail-party reputation, you’d better get them straight. Symphony usually refers to a musical work written in a certain form. But the term can also refer to a symphony orchestra, meaning a group of musicians who perform that kind of music.

If you hear your friend say, “I went to the symphony last night,” that means that she went to hear an orchestra — specifically, an orchestra that habitually plays symphonies. But if your friend goes on to say, “And they played a wonderful symphony,” she’s referring to the piece of music itself.

The parts (or movements) of a symphony are usually free standing, with one movement ending, a pause, and then the next movement beginning. But the sections, conceived as parts of a whole, somehow relate to one another. The German word for movement is Satz, which means “sentence.” The four movements of a symphony fit together like the four sentences in this paragraph.

With rare exceptions, the four movements of a symphony conform to a standardized pattern. The first movement is brisk and lively; the second is slower and more lyrical; the third is an energetic minuet (dance) or a boisterous scherzo (“joke”); and the fourth is a rollicking finale.

Actually, composers and music jocks make a big deal over the structure inside each of the four movements.

First movement: brisk and lively

The first movement of a symphony usually has a structure called sonata form. Sonata form is simple, and understanding it will enhance your appreciation of almost all classical music. What follows is simplified further still, but it applies to the first movement of most classical symphonies.

A movement in sonata form has two musical themes (or melodies). The first is usually loud and forceful; the second is quiet and lyrical. These themes are often referred to as the masculine and the feminine melodies. You may also think of them as iron and silk, or yang and yin, or jalapeño and Jell-O. Whatever. In any case, the entire movement is based on these themes.

  • At the very beginning of the movement, you hear the strong first theme; then, after a brief bit of interesting activity in the harmony department, the softer second theme comes in. This whole section’s purpose in life is to introduce, or expose, the two melodies; therefore, musicians call this part of the first movement the exposition.

  • Then comes a new section. Here the composer develops the two themes, varying them and making interesting musical associations. Logically enough, this section is called the development section.

  • Finally, the main ideas are reintroduced in the same order as at the beginning: first the strong, powerful theme and then the quieter, more lyrical one. The composer restates these themes in a slightly different form, but they’re very recognizable for what they are. This section is called the recapitulation.

Here’s the structure, simplified still further:

EXPOSITION — DEVELOPMENT — RECAPITULATION

All movements in sonata form have this sequence of events. Nearly all the symphonies, string quartets, and sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and countless other composers begin with a first movement in sonata form. In fact, you can hear a perfect example of it in the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 (Track 04).

Second movement: slow and lyrical

Back to our symphony in progress: After the lively and energetic first movement, it’s time to relax. The second movement is usually slow and lyrical, with a lilting, songlike theme. No battle-of-the-sexes melody thing goes on here, and the structure can be looser than in the first movement. Sit back and drink it in.

Third movement: dancy

The third movement of a symphony is dancelike — either a minuet (based on the old courtly dance) or a scherzo (meaning “joke” — a quick, often lighthearted tune). The third movement is usually written in three-quarter time; that is, each bar has three beats. (If you count “ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three,” you’re counting three beats to the bar.)

Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), the papa of symphonic form, first made the minuet standard equipment in a symphony. Listen, for example, to the third movement of just about any Haydn symphony, from no. 31 to no. 104.

This third movement usually consists of three sections. First you hear the minuet or scherzo itself. Then comes a contrasting section (often for a smaller group of instruments) called a trio. Finally, the minuet or scherzo section comes back again.

So the entire third movement sounds like this:

MINUET — TRIO — MINUET

or

SCHERZO — TRIO — SCHERZO

The next time you listen to a symphony, try to distinguish these sections of the third movement.

Finale: rollicking

Now on to the rollicking finale. The final movement is usually fast and furious, showing off the virtuosic prowess of the orchestra. This finale is usually quite light in character — that is, it doesn’t have a great deal of emotional depth. The finale’s much more concerned with having a good time. But wait — there’s more! Very often, this final movement is in rondo form. Yes, this last movement has a substructure of its own.

In a rondo, you hear one delightful theme over and over again, alternating with something contrasting. Here’s an example of a rondo, in written form:

I will not raise taxes.

I have character.

I will not raise taxes.

I will be tough on crime.

I will not raise taxes.

I will make things the way they used to be, which is a heck of a lot better than they are now.

I will not raise taxes.

If you call “I will not raise taxes” theme A, and the other three themes B, C, and D, then you can describe this rondo form as follows:

A-B-A-C-A-D-A

You can find another great example of rondo form in the finale of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 22 Track 03).